When I first saw The Matrix in April of 1999, it was a Star Wars moment for me.
In the year 1999, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a computer hacker, alias Neo, by night and a bored cubicle jockey by day. His latest obsession is tracking a mysterious figure called Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a legendary hacker himself.
A dizzying blend of action and philosophy, The Matrix remains one of the most intriguing and cerebral of all modern Hollywood blockbusters.
At the same time that the film pushes the technological art of film forward a generation by the pioneering use of new special effects, it simultaneously harks back to a period in genre history when thematic subtext and intellectual gamesmanship played a critical role in the film making process. Like the dystopic visions of Planet of the Apes (1968), Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), THX-1138 (1971), Zardoz (1974) and even John Carpenter's Dark Star (1975), The Matrix utilizes the genre primarily as a vehicle for conveying powerful, challenging ideas about the changing parameters of the human equation.
In terms of philosophy, we would probably term this idea an example of Phenomenology, after Edmund Hasserl's field of study and research. In particular, the film obsesses on the idea that consciousness itself is always the consciousness of something or someone. It is not objective.
What we see and perceive with our senses therefore represents only one side side or aspect of reality. Because of this fact, what we claim to "know" is not actually known in an objective sense. Again, Morpheus describes the crucible of this dilemma in The Matrix: "If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain."
His next point hammers it home: "Don't think you are, know you are," he implores Neo, suggesting that Neo must overcome the construct of "reality" his mind has erected around him. The movie's most famous line of dialogue involves the awareness of this truth. You cannot bend a spoon with your mind because there is no spoon. It is the mind that must do the bending.
This notion comes across most plainly in the early section of the film, as Neo searches desperately for some sort of meaning or answer about life itself. He works in an ugly, green-hued office environment, in a small, anonymous cubicle, "a cog" in the vast corporate machine, as it were.
When he is called on the carpet by his wrong-headed boss, the directors of the film cut suddenly to a view outside the window, of a window-washer cleaning the transparent surface. This shot is a metaphor for Neo's life at this point: he is trapped inside a system in which he feels unimportant. Meanwhile, just outside, something tries to get in; to affect his consciousness; to draw his attention to something beyond the system which manipulates him. He's on the verge of seeing it, on the verge of perception, but not yet ready...
The scene is brilliantly wrought, and yet Neo and Trinity are still "murdering" people, even if their victims are slaves to the Matrix.
Some critics have described this sequence as an incitement to violence because it turns "people," essentially, into video game avatars. And it's easier, one supposes, to blow away an avatar than a living human being, right? The outsiders to the Matrix (the freedom fighters like Neo), are able to look at other human beings as being simply "pawns" of the machine, and somehow less valuable, the argument goes, I guess. In that sense, some people might view the film according to another philosophy: fascism. The chosen few decide who amongst the rabble lives and dies, with an Aryan-like "One" leading the purge.
The film's purview is combat and all-out war, with the survival of the human race on the line, so Trinity and Neo are no more inciting violence than Luke Skywalker was when he destroyed the Death Star, and all the people aboard that vast space station. We accept such situations in spectacular action films, rightly or wrongly, and The Matrix need not be singled out as a negative example, especially when there are far more objectionable films out there (see: 2008's Wanted).
Finally, The Matrix does one thing that all great science fiction films must inevitably do. It not only presents a consistent and driving philosophy for its heroes to pursue (in this case, the way of the Buddhist warrior essentially...), it also achieves the same thing for its main antagonist.
The look of the film is also extraordinary. From the first frames of The Matrix, which feature imagery of green computer code cascading down a screen, the film forges a sickly, emerald palette for moments involving life inside the computer/Matrix. It's an inhuman, antiseptic color that makes audiences aware immediately that something is wrong; that something "inhuman" is happening beneath the scenes. The generic "establishment" look of the agents works in a very similar fashion. At first, the agents seem anonymous and indistinguishable in their suits and ties, but soon we begin to understand that look as a kind of uniform," one that generates terror and dread.
Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.